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Learning Tolerance in the City That Never Smiles

09/26/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2011

I recently walked into a New York City bar full of people I hate: the stench of Armani cologne and newly-earned dough and the glimmer of BVLGARI watches and finely groomed hair radiating from the BBA recipients turned Goldman Sachs henchmen, the type of guys who spend their springs quail hunting in Montana and summers lounging in the Hamptons, the type of guys who call their grandmothers Nana and whose parents laughed with (notice, not "at") The Official Preppy Handbook the way NASCAR fans laughed with Ricky Bobby.

I hated the people in that bar -- even more than I hate NASCAR. And then it occurred to me: wait, three of them are my best friends.

In college, we all lived in the same fraternity house, a place where the goofy Jewish Midwestern English major (me) teamed up the WASP-y business school standouts (them) for many-a-night of beer-pong dominance.

Now, we're all working in New York, and while our collegiate history and fraternal bonds remain, our lives have begun to diverge: them in the in the swank-ified Meatpacking District apartment, me in the head shop and tattoo parlor Mecca of Greenwich Village. This new environment has illuminated our differences, and I've become aware that the community and camaraderie of college is susceptible to being trumped by the class-consciousness of city life and the working world.

I am the son of a wannabe-hippie guidance counselor and a former high-school Mr. Congeniality, but despite an upbringing that promoted acceptance and pleasant eye contact with everyone I pass (as if to say, "Lovely day, isn't, mister homeless man!"), just a few months on the urban battlefield has turned me more impatient than I imagined it would.

It must have to do something with the cacophonous volley of car horns smattered with profanity and middle fingers, the glaring and slurring following an unintentional collision on the subway platform, or the time I saw one guy kick another in the chest at Two Bros. Pizza. I was appalled: at a dollar a slice, how could anyone be less than ecstatic?

When I first moved, a friend told me, "This city won't make you a bad person. But you'll definitely be worse." After two months spent in the Big Apple, I'm beginning to think she's right. I don't want to admit it, but the city's emphasis on efficiency and dog-eat-dog competition for personal gain, its inundation of personal and professional politics has had osmotic effect on my subconscious.

I'm quicker to generalize and resent others, like the guys in the bar that night, despite my love and respect for three of them. There's this disconnect between the individuals in my life and the stereotype that, in my mind, (unfairly) defines them. I don't understand their politics, I'm don't know what a hedge fund is, and I'm not sure how to pronounce BVLGARI. Really, rich people, could you not afford some vowels? And while we're at it, damn your well-pressed shirt and chiseled bone structure. Who do you think you are, a Brooks Brothers model?

It's at these moments of frustration that I force myself to summon the perspective and empathy I learned during my Midwestern childhood and Southern college career. I consider the times when I, the judger has been I, the judgee. And boy, are those times abundant. As a modern dancer, I've been pigeonholed right along with dainty gay men in jean shorts and tattooed women with nipple rings and untamed armpit hair. Fill in the blanks on these stereotypes: Jew, Ohioan, guy who can recite every lyric in Grease.

As a social chameleon, someone who exists at the intersection of very different worlds in the same place, I've experienced what it means to generalize, marginalize, and stigmatize from both sides of the street. Ironically, it's on the mean streets of the City That Never Smiles that I've been forced to exercise patience, tolerance, and compassion. I can't dislike all young handsome financiers, because I love three of them enough to put on a stupid collared shirt and buy a $12 drink and skittishly avoid eye contact with girls who are way out of my league both physically and financially. Now, that's love, especially if they buy the next round.

I recently saw a sign that read simply, "I want everyone to love everyone." It's idealistic and naively utopian, sure, but it sounds nice, especially if it means people will stop kicking each other in the chest. If we can't all love each other, maybe everyone can at least love the pizza. Here in New York, that shouldn't be a problem.

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